Worshipping God in Spirit and in Truth

6 min

In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, we have the account of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus was traveling back to Galilee after a visit to Jerusalem. Instead of taking the normal route along the Jordan River, Jesus took the ridge road that led directly northward through the hill country of Samaria. Most Jews avoided the region of Samaria because they despised the inhabitants of the land who were known contemptuously as Samaritans.

The conversation that Jesus and the woman had calls for a bit of background on the Samaritan people, their language, and their peculiar customs. After the fall of the northern kingdom, the Assyrian empire had devastated the countryside of Samaria. They had deported a large part of the native Israelite population and replaced the Israelites with captives from different regions. These captives included foreign pagans who had intermarried with the remaining Israelites. Those resulting descendants of these intermarriages were known as Samaritans.

The Samaritans did not worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, they worshipped at the twin mountains, Ebal and Gerizim, near Shechem where Jacob had dug a well and later Joshua had built an altar. The Samaritans had their own religious customs, culture, distinct priesthood, and even their own Hebrew alphabet!

Significantly, according to John 4:3–4, Jesus chose this particular route because “he must needs go through Samaria.” As omniscient God, He knew He had an appointment with the woman at the well. “Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour. There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink” (John 4:6–7).

In this passage, the divinity and humanity of our Lord is revealed in perfect union. As true God, Jesus was fully aware of His divine mission, His divine purpose, and His divine power. He was omniscient, and He knew every detail of the life of the woman to whom He was speaking. As 100% man, Jesus was weary from His long journey. He was hungry, and His disciples had gone into the village to buy bread. He also thirsted for water. Although Jesus could have performed a miracle to supply His needs immediately, He chose to suffer need, to purchase bread, and to ask for water.

The woman was surprised that Jesus, a Jewish man, would speak to a Samaritan woman such as herself. “Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9).

Culturally, morally, and even religiously, Jesus and this woman were very different. Most Jews would not dare to drink from a clay pot which had been used by a Samaritan!

Yet Jesus pursued the conversation with merciful persistence. “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water” (John 4:10). In this conversation, Jesus was doing what we as His disciples should also learn to do: He was turning the woman’s thinking from physical realities to spiritual realities. He was calling her attention away from physical water to spiritual water.

At first, she was blind to the spiritual reality of what the Master was offering to her. “The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?” (John 4:11–12).

As proud as the Jews were of their pure ethnicity and culture, the Samaritans were equally proud of their own traditions. They saw their language and priesthood as uncorrupted by the Babylonian exile, and they considered themselves the true inheritors of the ancient Hebrew religion and customs.

Jesus ignored her slur with sublime indifference. “Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13–14).

Perhaps with sincere interest, perhaps with a smile of incredulity, the woman answered. “Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw” (John 4:15).

At this point, Jesus revealed His omniscient knowledge of every intimate detail of this woman’s life. “Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither” (John 4:16).

Defensively, the woman tried to evade the private matters of her own life. “The woman answered and said, I have no husband” (John 4:17).

Our Lord knew the whole ugly truth of her past. “Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly” (John 4:17–18).

Astonished by His knowledge, the Samaritan woman could only confess the truth. “The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet” (John 4:19).

Like many sinners confronted by their sin, the woman attempted to put up an appearance of religious knowledge, holding fast to her traditions and religious identity. Trying to distract Jesus from her immoral past, she asserted her trust in her own traditions. “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:20).

When under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, people naturally fall back upon physical traditions of religion. The woman wanted to debate this mountain, Shechem, versus that mountain, Jerusalem; Jacob versus Hezekiah; and Samaritan traditions versus Jewish traditions.

Jesus gently but firmly pointed her away from the natural to the spiritual, from the outward to the inward. “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21–24).

True worship transcends all petty arguments of customs, culture, traditions, and locations. Jesus pointed to the spiritual reality of the attribute of God’s spiritual nature. The Father was seeking then—and is still seeking now—men and women, Jews and Gentiles, bond and free, old and young, to worship Him in spirit and in truth. Our worship must be anchored in the truth of Scripture and led by the Holy Spirit in order to be pleasing to God.

Confronted by the truth, the woman expressed the common Messianic hope that was shared by Samaritan and Jewish traditions alike: one day the Messiah would come to rectify all things and make all mysteries plain. “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25).

Jesus had already surprised this woman by even speaking to her and asking for water. He astonished her even more by promising living water that would satisfy eternally. He astounded her yet again by knowing the intimate details of her personal life. But all of this was mere preparation for these magnificent words of self-revelation: “Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he” (John 4:26).

Slowly but steadily, Jesus had led this woman to the point where He revealed Himself as the Messiah. Starting with physical water, He turned her attention to the spiritual water of life. Pinpointing her sin, He gently but firmly confronted her with the truth. He even used her attempted smoke screen to teach her about the spiritual nature of true worship. Now, He had revealed Himself to her in all of His saving grace as the promised Anointed One.

By the time Jesus left this little village, according to John 4:39, “many of the Samaritans of that city” had believed what the chief priests and scribes in the Temple had not believed—that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. The disciples were astonished at the results of our Lord’s witness! He exhorted them, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (John 4:35).

In our own lives and daily encounters, God is willing to direct our steps toward divine appointments with needy men and women who are as this woman at the well. Like our Lord, we should be ever ready and willing to point sinners away from the physical toward the spiritual, and away from the outward to the inward. May God help us to turn those we encounter away from distracting issues such as traditions, customs, and outward forms of worship, and to focus instead upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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